Friday, August 03, 2012

Metropolitan & The Last Days of Disco: The Criterion Blu-ray reviews

Filmmakers who only make movies when they feel they have something worth saying are a rarity in this age, where it seems the goal is to see how quickly one can be hired to helm the latest, biggest superhero opus. Whit Stillman has only made four movies since 1990, including his hyphenate debut, Metropolitan, which was released that year, and rather amazingly snagged an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. It lost to Ghost, which, from today’s perspective, is a travesty, but typical of the Academy nevertheless. 50% of Stillman’s filmic oeuvre, including the aforementioned Metropolitan, along with The Last Days of Disco (1998), both hit Blu-ray last week, and from the fine folks at Criterion, no less.

When I think of Stillman’s films, what I think of first is the speech; the way the characters speak. His films are drunk on subtle affectations of the English language (but not necessarily the language itself). It isn’t that, in a Stillman movie, what the characters have to say isn’t important, but rather that you’ll find yourself almost hypnotized by the manner in which they’re saying it. No doubt some viewers will be just plain annoyed by the incessant, rhythmic chatter. Those people will not find the next film of his any more tolerable, because there’s no question that a Stillman film is a Stillman film. I’d use the word unique if not for the fact there are now four of them. Now, all of that said, Stillman’s dialogue is second to none, and positively crackling when heard within the context of the situations he devises, and coming from the mouths of the memorable characters he’s created.

Metropolitan follows a group of young, rich people living in New York City during Debutante Season, which apparently coincides with Christmas break. Now you must understand that I was born and raised in small town Missouri, and have spent my adult life in Texas. There is no reason on this Earth or any other why I should care about these people and their cushy situation, and yet Stillman writes characters that interest, and therefore their situations are of interest as well. The kids in Metropolitan are interesting because they genuinely appear to struggle with their existence. It’s easy to write privileged folk as shallow. Most do. What’s tough is giving them some sort of depth, which Stillman does. Into their privileged lives stumbles Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who is not privileged, nor is he rich. The group accepts him (some quicker than others), as they are basically decent people and they recognize a kindred spirit in Tom, and the film showcases one complex conversation, argument and/or debate after another, all draped in some wraparound, romantic entanglements.

I’ll never quite understand why Metropolitan is reminiscent of some John Hughes movie from an alternate universe, yet for me it is. It’s sort of like The Breakfast Club, if that movie had little interest in appealing to the masses. I think Stillman wants his movies to be appreciated and liked (any filmmaker who’ll tell you otherwise is lying), but I think he also knows there’s a specific audience for his work. I’ll not venture out and guess who that audience is, because by my own admission I don’t feel as though I’m part of the target, and yet I’m endlessly amused by his universe. It’s anyone’s guess who’ll like a Whit Stillman movie, and the only way to find out is to dive in and see if it’s a club you want to join.

Chris Eigeman
Some years after Metropolitan, in 1994, Stillman unveiled Barcelona, which starred Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, both of whom had made their big screen debuts in Metropolitan. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that someday soon, Barcelona also gets the Criterion treatment. Four years after Barcelona came The Last Days of Disco, which ended up being Stillman’s last movie until 2011, when he brought us Damsels in Distress, which I must confess I have not yet seen, as it played for only a week in San Antonio, but is hitting DVD and Blu-ray in September.

But we’re here to talk about Disco, and The Last Days of it. Much of what I wrote about Metropolitan applies to this movie as well, except that Stillman had a bigger budget and access to all sorts of folks who at the time were up and coming Hollywood talent: ChloĆ« Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Matt Ross, Robert Sean Leonard, and Matt Keeslar to name a few, as well as Chris Eigeman, the De Niro to Stillman’s Scorsese for the third time in a row. Or the MacLachlan to his Lynch. Someday, for a lesser known director and actor combo, I will hopefully say “The Eigeman to his Stillman.” Disco follows a group of twentysomethings in the year 1980, or maybe 1981, as they navigate their way through the changing times. Their self-involved dialogue covers their places in the world to sexuality to careers to, of course, disco. With a Whit Stillman movie, you can’t always tell when he’s taking his characters seriously and when’s having a laugh at their expense. Such lines are blurred, and that’s a big part of the charm of his style.

What I believe to be the triumph of Disco, is that despite packing the movie from one end to the other with disco hits, and regardless of the fact that much of the film takes place in a Studio 54-like nightclub, the movie never once, not even for a second, feels in the least bit kitschy. It is a Whit Stillman movie first and foremost, and his style never gets swallowed by the tacky surroundings, nor does he as a writer or director ever rely on nostalgia or wallow in excess or wink through the camera. The title of the film is wholly accurate, and yet it’s a film that shouldn't be judged by that title. Simply put, you may have no interest in disco yet still appreciate this work. No mean feat, no lack of vision and talent.

It’s tempting to suggest that these two movies would make a fine double feature, but I won’t. The day these discs arrived I watched Metropolitan, and let it wash over me. A few hours later I put on Disco, and within ten minutes I realized that I couldn’t watch two Stillman movies in one day. They’re too thick for that. The movies leave the viewer with so much to think about, that one cannot simply move on to the next one. I ended up putting a week or so between the viewings and Disco felt all the stronger for it. It was perhaps the most rewarding viewing of the movie I’d ever had. In some ways the same can be said for the Metropolitan viewing, simply because I’ve never seen it look as nice as it does on this Blu-ray. (It may even have been the first time I saw it in its proper aspect ratio.) Disco has always looked reasonably good, so this presentation wasn’t exactly revelatory, but a nice Criterion presentation nevertheless. (If you're interested in Blu-ray screencaps, I recommend looking at the articles at DVD Beaver here and here.)

Whit Stillman

Blu-ray Extras: The star extras here are undoubtedly the commentary tracks. Metropolitan features Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, as well as Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. It’s an informative track to be sure, and certainly well worth a listen if you’ve any interest in grass roots independent filmmaking (indeed, Metropolitan is one of the poster children for true indie filmmaking). The Disco track features Stillman, Eigeman, and Sevigny and by comparison is a great deal more fun and flirty, due to Sevigny’s lively presence.

Additionally, Metropolitan offers up some deleted scenes and some alternate casting choices, with optional commentary, as well as a booklet with an essay by Luc Sante. Disco also has some deleted scenes with optional commentary, an audio recording of Stillman reading a chapter from his book, The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which was published a couple years after the movie was released. There’s also a behind-the-scene promo featurette from 1998, a stills gallery, and a trailer, as well as a booklet with an essay by David Schickler.